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The Evening Shema: The Perfect Place to Begin

Parshat Ve’eschanan contains probably the most well-known verse of the Torah, the Shema. The Talmud opens with the Mishnah’s discussion of the Shema. In particular it asks, “when is the proper time to read the evening Shema?” To this, the Talmud poses a question of its own: “why first discuss the Shema of the evening and not the morning?” The answer ultimately given—that G-d created the night first—only leaves us with more questions. 

The premise of the Talmud’s question was that the darkness of night is the wrong place to start, and its answer seems to be nothing more than a resignation to the natural state of affairs. Isn’t the Torah supposed to focus on light, and standing up for what is moral even when it defies the conventions of nature? 

In a poetic turn of events, the answer is found in the very conclusion of the Talmud. “All who learn halachot each day are promised a place in the world to come, as it is written, “His are the ancient ways” — do not read “ways of old [halichot]” but “Halachot.” Habakkuk 3:6. We’d think, what’s so special about someone who learns a portion of Halacha every single day? Surely if one misses just one day, while being sure to learn yesterday and tomorrow, nothing of value is lost?

If we look at the original verse in Habakkuk, the Talmud’s reading seems puzzling: “He stands and shakes the earth, He beholds and makes the nations tremble, the everlasting mountains are dashed to bits, the hills bow, His are the ways of old.” In the simple reading, the verse describes G-d’s power, and in the Talmud’s reading, the verse describes the power of our Torah learning. 

In truth the two understandings both get at a single truth. G-d rules the world in a just manner through the morality of the Torah, and by learning the Torah we participate in the rectification of the world. When we learn Torah we become a “partner” in the creation of G-d’s world, by helping to bring it closer to the way it ought to be. 

This brings us back to the evening Shema. We could very well skip the evening, and begin our discussion with what seems to be a more appropriate theme. But in practice, we cannot wait for the light of day. If G-d created night first, we cannot simply wait out the darkness. Instead we have to bring the light of holiness and Torah into the world even while it is still night. 

In this way, by opening with a discussion of the evening Shema, the Talmud is teaching us that we cannot afford to let the evening pass us by. Every moment that G-d creates is an opportunity that we ought not overlook. Even if it seems an odd place to begin, every ordinary moment can become a sublime opportunity, if only we get started.

Based on Toras Menachem Vol. XXVII pg. 222

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